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Classroom Q&A

With Larry Ferlazzo

In this EdWeek blog, an experiment in knowledge-gathering, Ferlazzo will address readers’ questions on classroom management, ELL instruction, lesson planning, and other issues facing teachers. Send your questions to lferlazzo@epe.org. Read more from this blog.

Curriculum Opinion

Author Interview: ‘The Right Tools’

By Larry Ferlazzo — July 28, 2019 10 min read
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Towanda Harris agreed to answer a few questions about her new book, The Right Tools: A Guide to Selecting, Evaluating, and Implementing Classroom Resources and Practices.

From the classroom to the district, Towanda Harris has trained teachers throughout the state of Georgia. She brings almost 20 years of professional experience to each of her sessions. Originally an elementary school teacher, she has served as a literacy coach, adjunct professor, K-12 staff developer, and curriculum writer.

LF: Your book offers a “path” that teachers can use to guide their instruction. Your first chapter discusses analyzing students’ “strengths and needs.” One of the ways you suggest doing so is through the use of assessments—diagnostic, formative, and summative. What are some of your favorite assessment tools for each category, and why do you like them?

Towanda Harris:

The goal of assessments should be to dig deeper to identify learners’ strengths and needs for various skills; however, too often I see the “overtesting” syndrome in schools in which students are bombarded with diagnostic, formative, and summative tools and the teacher struggles with identifying a clear starting point to positively impact individual student growth. When used properly, assessments can help to support the learner and, additionally, can provide them with a solid road map to a student’s mastery. Diagnostic, formative, and summative assessment should all work together, yet they have distinguishing differences and purposes.

Diagnostic assessments are used to identify a learner’s baseline strengths and needs prior to instruction. Giving students a pretest or a questionnaire is a great way to gather individual data and begin to plan for upcoming instruction. By beginning with the end in mind, the teacher understands the end goal and can use this valuable data to create small groups, plan for practice opportunities, and determine meaningful ways to formatively check for students’ understanding.

Formative assessments are the most crucial type of assessment during the learning process. The purpose is to check for students’ understanding throughout instruction. This allows teachers to make real-time adjustments to their instruction and ensures that students receive immediate feedback in addition to helping to differentiate instruction. The use of turn and talks, exit tickets, or graphic organizers are a great way to check students’ understanding in a nonevaluative setting. Teachers can provide helpful feedback while notating any areas of concerns that he or she has for each student.

Summative assessments are used to evaluate student learning at the end of an instructional period. The results should not be too much of a surprise because the frequent use of formative assessments help to make adjustments, differentiate, and identify small groups prior to the summative ones. In addition, these assessments should be somewhat related to the skills that were assessed during the diagnostic assessment. Teachers should be self-reflective when looking at the results. It’s very useful to identify common trends, determine reteaching opportunities for unmastered skills, and identify any gaps in instruction. End-of-unit tests are extremely valuable because they provide teachers with data that directly relates to the learning experiences during the course of the learning period.

Image From “The Right Tools.” Reprinted with Permission

LF: Student goal-setting is another strategy you recommend. How can teachers encourage students to set their own goals while, at the same time, providing helpful guidance and still maintaining student ownership?

Towanda Harris:

Goal-setting allows opportunities for rich conversations between students and teachers. When students are invited into the conversation, the door of academic ownership begins to open. During the process of goal-setting, it is helpful that teachers share with students the value of setting goals and how they help to support them on their learning journey. Questions such as, “What things should I think about when setting my goals?” and “What support do I need to be successful in achieving them?” are all effective ways to begin the goal-setting conversation.

Teachers can encourage students to set their own goals by considering these things:

  • Be encouraging and positive

    • Dispel the myth that goal-setting is just for struggling students; instead, it is a great strategy for all students. Regardless of the age of the students, it’s important that they understand that your number one mission is to support their learning and help them meet the goals that you both have established.
  • Set priorities and create bite-sized steps

    • As educators, it’s easy to fall into the “fix-it-now” mentality. We understand the sense of urgency to grow learners, but we have to be more intentional with our conversations that we have with our students. Buy-in is crucial when setting priorities, and creating bite-sized steps with students allows them to experience small wins that lead to a bigger purpose.
  • Be clear about expectations

    • This is the difference between the “compliance” monster, in which students only do what they are told versus learner ownership, in which students are actively working toward the expectations that were established. When we make the path to learning clear for students, it’s much easier for us to make adjustments along the way to ensure that they have the tools needed to be successful.

LF: You talk about the importance of teachers’ evaluating classroom resources and materials to ensure they meet the needs of their students. Many teachers, though, are in situations where they may not have much choice about the curriculum and materials they use. How do you recommend that a teacher in that situation—and who doesn’t feel like the materials are benefiting their students—handle things?

Towanda Harris:

Establishing a success criteria, prior to delivering lessons, is a very helpful strategy to ensure that expectations align with skills and standards versus solely relying on curriculum to set the criteria. An alignment sticker cannot be enough when evaluating classroom resources and materials. It’s great to use curriculum and materials in your classroom, but it should not be your only source that is used to grow learners. Too often I have witnessed programs progress lessons that simply miss the mark and rarely get to the rigor needed to master an identified skill. Here are some things to consider when choice is limited with curriculum and resources:

The Use of Assessments

  • Regardless of your program of choice, it is essential that the use of formative and summative assessments are common practice when identifying gaps in the students’ learning. Refer to your success criteria when developing these checkpoints or when using premade assessments. It is very important that it directly relates to what you expect students to do, and if not, it’s OK to make adjustments prior to putting it in front of students.

Remediation of Skills

  • Information from checkpoints will help to inform next steps to build in time for remediation. Be intentional about using this information to group students and provide explicit instruction on a specific skill or standard. If you have used the curriculum or resource with students initially and aren’t noticing students grasping the concepts, then use another resources that has been vetted by other educators. Remember to keep your success criteria in mind but be creative when spiraling in lesson for skills that students have not mastered. Spiraling could occur during whole group or small group and during literacy centers, guided reading groups, the closure of a lesson, etc. For example, during an upcoming lesson, the identified text for the lesson can easily be used to reteach previous skills. Adding or modifying an activity or a premade assessment can help to check students’ understanding of remediated skills.

Plan for Student Misconceptions

  • Plan for students’ misconceptions prior to delivering instruction so that they are on your radar. In addition, analyzing student work during instruction allows teachers to qualitatively see where students’ misunderstanding lives and could be cleared up quickly. Looking at a student’s score will limit your ability to drill down to the misunderstanding that a student may have while going through the process. When considering what students may struggle with, ask yourself things like, “When I taught this skill last year, what did my students seem to have the most problems with?” or “What foundational skills do students need to have in order to understand this skill, and which students struggled the most with those foundational skills?”

LF: The book spends a fair amount of time discussing group work. What are your key suggestions to teachers who want to organize effective student group work in their classes?

Towanda Harris:

Organizing effective student work groups is a key factor in growing learners within your class. From whole group to small groups to one-on-one support, students’ role in the learning process may vary. For example, when looking through the lens of the gradual release of responsibility, the initial exposure to a skill begins with the teacher modeling the process and the thinking that should take place. However, the shift occurs when the teacher begins scaffolding and allowing the students to experience the process and thinking for themselves. This process gets messy and has a lot of moving parts, which may lead to students moving at different paces. You may see pockets of success or even pockets of struggles. Don’t worry, all of this is useful when forming effective work groups. The end goal remains the same, but the steps to get there may be different. The thing to consider when grouping students is the academic purpose or goal. Consider questions such as:

  • Who will choose the groups?
  • If they are teacher-chosen, how will they be determined?
  • How big will the groups be?
  • How will the groups use class time?
  • How will the groups be flexible (i.e., whole class, small group, partner)

During this time, it’s important to maximize the time that these students have together. Here are some guiding principles to keep in mind as you plan for effective group work:

    • It’s OK to use pieces of a resource to provide additional practice opportunities to reinforce, remediate, or accelerate a skill.
    • There is no one size fits all with group work. I know it may be tempting but avoid using a resource with a group that doesn’t need the additional practice.
    • Don’t use small-group time to reteach the same lesson that students did not get whole group; be strategic when planning for each group.
    • Don’t be afraid to change up student grouping based on the desired outcome, yet recognize differences within the groups.
    • Ensure that there is a clear structure within groups to ensure that all voices are heard.

LF: Is there anything I haven’t asked you that you’d like to share?

Towanda Harris:

From the “Putting It into Practice” section, which provides real stories of real students that needed the evaluation and the right tools chosen for them, to the “Conversation Starters” at the end of each chapter, that provide guiding questions to ask administrators and coaches, my goal was to provide a meaningful user-friendly book for teachers. The big takeaways that I would like educators to get from my book are to be able to:

    • identify what you and your students need to grow
    • match resources with your goals for your students
    • use resources with a primary focus on your students
    • assess how well the resource is working and adjust how you are using the resource if needed
    • utilize one of the most powerful resources available to you as a teacher—your colleagues

In the end, my desire is that educators become guarded on what they choose to put before their students to improve their learning. “When we consider what a resource proposes to do for our children, we also need to consider how the resource proposes to do it.” Teaching is not a cookie-cutter profession ... it’s much more complicated than that. Getting to know each and every student that fills up each seat from year to year is crucial to the instructional decisions that we make for them. Students are the deciding factor and not a program or resource.

LF: Thanks, Towanda!

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The opinions expressed in Classroom Q&A With Larry Ferlazzo are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.